Friday, November 4, 2011

Dream Library or Advoiding Library Obsolesence Part I

I recently read an article in American Libraries titled Avoiding the Path to Obsolescence by Steven Smith and Carmelita Pickett.  It was a thought provoking article that seeks to learn lessons from the failure of Blockbuster and the success of Netflix. (The article was apparently written before the major faux pas committed by Netflix when they tried to separate their DVD and streaming business and then raised their prices.)  Several of the comments listed after the article refute the usefulness of such a comparison stating that libraries are not business.  It is true that a library is not a business, but that does not negate the fact that we need to monitor the industry, and that we can learn from their successes and failures.  After all, an industry does not succeed unless it has something that a customer wants.

What struck me most about the article was that a key component they attributed to Netflix's success was that they were starting fresh without legacy issues.

"Netflix was not burdened by the need to support and retain a lot of practices, services, and structures that had once worked well.  It had the freedom to focus exclusively on the needs and wants of the consumers."
The next quote however had me hopping up and yelling "Yes, yes, yes!"

"But guessing correctly [what next device people will be using to access information], while important, is not really the key.  What matters is responding to customer wants and needs in a timely and efficient manner, even at the expense of letting go of past practices and tools no matter how cherished or successful.  A baggage-free focus on customer is what gave Netflix its original competitive advantage."
I got very excited.  If we were to invent the concept of the public library today and focus on the user's wants/needs without all of our legacy issues, what would we create?

[Caveat: The following is based on my observations and experiences and is highly idealized.  It is designed to start the thought process and not to be an end product. It does not reflect scientific research (though I may have to start a project). Since this is a dream library, cost is not considered. I am also not addressing issues such as preservation.]

I believe that we can categorize what users wants/needs are in three categories: physical needs, access to resources, access to people/staff.  I am posting this in three parts.  This post will address physical needs.

Physical Needs

Much like the trend in homes, people want the libraries to have zones based on function.  I have identified several possible zones.

Child's Zone:  The children (and their parents) want a play area.  They need a child friendly area with child-sized furniture and a nearby bathroom.  Don't forget the bathroom.  Cozy spots which can be easily cleaned are also a must for children's area.  For safety of the children this can be achieved with clever arrangement of low furniture rather than isolated areas.  Areas to explore their imaginations and create are also important.  The section should have a warm and welcoming feeling. It should also come equipped with children's computers with appropriate games, and as an added bonus, laptops for parents to check out and use in the area.  No more unattended children while the parent is on the computer!  Joyous day!

Teen Zone: Teens want a place to hangout and socialize.  We are constantly at odds with a lot of teens that come in because they are being...well teens.  We are exploring options to address the issue by better utlizing our space rather than constantly argue with teens.  They also want access to computers for homework - ok, only sometimes - they want to access computers for social networking including Youtube and Facebook.  When they do work on homework, they want group spaces as many project being assigned are group projects that often require computer access.

Adult Zone:  I was of mixed mind whether to include a separate adult zone.  Many of adult needs are met with zones listed below, but it seems to beg mentioning.  Adults want what is commonly called the book store experience.  Items should be merchandised, browsable, and attractive.  Grouping of chairs and end tables will facilitate browsing and quiet reading.

Computer Zone:  The computer zone should offer a somewhat quiet area for individuals to work. (Group computer space will be addressed below.)  Users want their computers to perform a variety of functions, and they want flexibility.  They want to be able to download that program to print out a coupon or edit a video. They want a variety of browsers available (not all sites/programs are optimized for all browsers).  Disabling functions for security frustrates the user and give them a sour experience. Access to equipment such as scanners and faxes (or combo devices such as digital senders) is expected.

Quiet Zone: Traditionalist don't despair!  People still want quiet areas in the library.  It should be stocked with small tables (nobody wants to share tables with someone they do not know) and comfortable table chairs and armchairs.  There should be plenty of plug-ins for laptops and good lighting - preferably table lamps.  (Oh to have an unlimited budget!)

Group Zone: People want places to meet as small groups.  This is distinctive from meeting rooms.  They may meet to work on a group project for homework (adults and teens), a small committee meetings, an interview for job or for a service, tutoring (unpaid of course), and a variety of other reasons.  They may/may not need access to computers.  Whether computers are in the all group space or just a few, they should have a larger sized monitor for easier viewing with a large desk or table to spread work.

Meetings/Programs Zone:  The meetings/program zone needs to have flexible set-up that can easily be rearranged to accommodate different programs and needs of large groups. The space also needs to be able to work with their technology such as providing a projector that will work with laptops, screen, and a decent sound system.  It should also be neat, clean, and inviting.  Too many meeting spaces are stained and institutional.

Customer Service Points:  This will mostly be addressed in the post addressing access to people.  Let me state here that customers want to be able to find someone easily and not have to worry about different desks having different functions.  They do not like to be redirected.  No one wants to stand in line twice or feel embarrased because they went to wrong place.

In reality, libraries have a limited budget.  While we cannot afford to scrap everything and start over, we do benefit from imagining if we could.  What we can do is prioritize what we need to move towards our dream library.  Some of the above can be achieved by rearranging our currents spaces, changing how we view customer service, and adopting some of the new technology as we normally replace our outdated systems.  Also, paint is the cheapest way to freshen a space, deligate areas, and decorate.  Walls in public spaces to do NOT have to a shade of white or some other neutral color.  In the grand scheme of things, paint is cheap.

What are your thoughts/wishes regarding space utilization for your dream library?  Do you have different ideas?


  1. Hi Tracey,

    A lot of this chimed with me too (an ex-public librarian in England). I'd also love some form of "cafe" too - people don't want to have to leave the building to grab a snack - they can stay and read awhile - increasing "dwelltime" maybe even becoming a "destination " to meet up with friends. Then others can really see what we have to offer - what do you think?
    Many thanks for the positive post.

  2. Collette,
    Thank you for mentioned a cafe. I can't believe that I forgot the food! It seems to be a highly desirable item amongst library and bookstore users.

    Thank you for the positive comments!

  3. Tracey,

    Thanks for sending me the link to this interesting and thought-provoking post. In my dream library, the building was carefully designed to include plenty of storage. The design and materials were also carefully chosen to be easy to clean and maintain. The most beautiful environment becomes unappealing if it is impractical to maintain.

    One question: Was Netflix's greatest strength also its downfall? A major cause of the success of Netflix was that it was able to change rapidly without worrying about the way things had always been done. A major cause of the downfall of Netflix was a huge change that it made rapidly, without taking time to consider it. What do you think?